An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Saint Mary’s Secondary School
Convent of Mercy, Mallow, County Cork
Roll number: 62350D
Date of inspection: 8 and 9 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Mary’s. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Irish and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and to the subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
The Irish language related activities represent an integral part of St. Mary’s identity. All inspection activities were carried out through the medium of Irish and this indicates the high status Irish has in the school.
Students in fifth and sixth years have six Irish classes a week. This indicates excellent support for the teaching and learning of Irish at this level and the management of the school is to be commended for enabling such provision. Students in second and third years have five classes a week, while first years have four classes and transition year students have three classes. It is recognised that timetable constraints are responsible for the small number of classes in these years. That said, it is recommended that the possibilities of an extra class being made available for the transition year students be explored because the more frequent learner contact with the target language the better.
First years and transition year classes are of mixed ability. In other years higher level classes are streamed according to ability while ordinary level classes are mixed. Classes are held at the same time so that students can move from one level to the other. It is good that such flexibility exists. The school provides the Leaving Certificate Applied programme and Communicative Irish is studied during the first year of this course.
Twenty eight students in the school are exempt from Irish. Fourteen of them are newcomers while the other fourteen have learning difficulties according to the circular M10/94. Extra support classes in English, literacy and numeracy are provided for these students during the Irish lessons. A number of students who are entitled to an exemption study Irish. This practice is commended. Not only does this participation impact greatly on the learning and self-respect of every student in the class, but it also demonstrates that Irish is recognised as a central part of the education programme that is provided in Ireland. As well as this, students from other countries often have a strength in language learning. There is a class of students who do not study Irish as they have Special Educational Needs. It is recommended that these students have some contact with Irish during their schooling.
There are nine teachers of Irish in the school and the majority of them have considerable experience of teaching Irish. They are members of the Cumann na Múinteoirí Gaeilge. Typically, one teacher attends meetings and reports back to her colleagues. It is recommended that a summary of this knowledge be included in the planning file. Department meetings are held on a regular basis, at least once a term. In the case where an extra meeting is required and requested arrangements are made accordingly. Copies of the minutes of the meetings are kept in the planning file. The themes of meetings include choice of textbooks, examinations, planning, extra-curricular activities, resources and students’ abilities in Irish. No specific person is named as Head of the Irish Department. The various responsibilities are divided equally among all the teachers and this system is deemed effective.
Nearly every teacher of Irish has her own room in which there is a tape-recorder, a television and a filing cabinet. Such a resource is of enormous benefit to teachers. It enables them to create a stimulating learning atmosphere as well as to organise the collection of teaching aids that they have collected. Teachers have access to a laptop and to a projector. The school also has a modern language laboratory. The person in charge of the laboratory has expertise in technological matters and has a good understanding of the use of technology in language learning. Resources in the teaching and learning of Irish are continually being extended. At the end of the year, the Irish Department submits a proposal to school management and a specific amount of money is allocated to the Department at the beginning of the following school year. A copy of the permitted budget is kept in the planning file. There is a library in the school and currently the collection of Irish books is being extended. It is recommended that a collection of novels suitable reading for students who received their primary education in an All-Irish School be incorporated, with a view to improving their Irish.
Drama, poetry composition, interschool ceilís, camogie, traditional music and quiz competitions are among extra-curricular activities. Participation in these activities is of great importance - not only does such participation encourage the speaking of Irish outside the classroom but it also indicates that Irish has a place in the ordinary every-day life of the students. It is recommended that thought be given to more ways in which students could be brought into contact with Irish during the school day. There would be great merit in establishing a Club Gaeilge in which benefit would accrue from the experience of the students who received their primary education in an All-Irish School and who communicate through the mediuk of Irish comfortably. It was also recommended that students of high ability would be encouraged to enter composition and debating competitions as a means of further developing their level of Irish. It was also recommended that there would be a notice board, specifically for Irish, in which there would be information about Irish events in the school.
The school has been engaged in whole school planning and in subject planning for some time. Two of the Irish teachers are on the planning committee and this understanding of planning matters is of great help in the Irish Department.
The level of individual planning is remarkable: each teacher made schemes available. These schemes indicated clearly what had been covered and what was to be covered in the Irish class. It was clear that the teachers had given careful consideration to the learning objectives and to the best approach towards achieving those objectives. In the case of some of the schemes, the work plan was presented according to the textbook chapters: that is, emphasis was placed on themes rather than on language functions. It is recommended that, attention be primarily directed towards the language skills to be developed and that the strategies to develop these skills be linked to the textbook chapter and suitable learning resources.
A principal planning file exists for Irish in which ample knowledge of what is going on in the school in Irish is made available. In it a plan of work is outlined for the Junior Cycle, the Transition Year and the Senior Cycle together with the Irish Teachers’ work schemes. There is reference to the entrance examination that is undertaken by incoming students. It contains a scrutiny of examination results, copies of the Irish Department’s budgets as well as copies of the minutes of meetings of the Irish Department. It would be a good idea if there were a general statement in respect of Irish at the beginning of the file. This statement would function as a guide to every member of the Irish community in the school.
It is customary for the teachers of Irish to come together, both formally and informally, to discuss questions relating to Irish. Cooperative planning is a very important part of these discussions. A common course is taught to the first year students and they have a common examination at the end of the year. Teachers often confer with each other and the planning documents indicate that the teachers work cooperatively. It is strongly recommended that the Department would come together to discuss in detail ways in which to serve the differentiated needs of learners in the context of mixed ability classes. The special circumstances of students who received their primary education through Irish should be taken into consideration. Transition year has mixed ability classes, which means that each teacher has the same cohort from the point of view of ability. It is recommended that the cooperative planning process be extended and that a specific language course would be outlined, a course that develops the skills which will be most important in the senior cycle. An interesting, diverse communicative programme should be outlined in which the transition year students would engage in learning the language through various methods. This is a great opportunity to avail of the strengths of every member of the school’s Irish community.
Certain members of the school staff have expressed an interest in Comparative Teaching. This is commendable in so far as it indicates the respect that staff members have for their colleagues’ ability as teachers. It shows that the school management and the teaching staff recognise that there is expertise in the craft of teaching among themselves. One of the greatest advantages of cooperative learning is that it directs attention to the specific context in which the teacher functions.
It was with enthusiasm and interest that participants undertook their responsibilities during the Irish classes that were observed. It was evident that there was an established work ethic in every class and that the students were accustomed to engaging in worthwhile work during the Irish class. This was evident in the high standard of Irish among learners in general.
Irish was the medium in every class observed. It was in Irish that the teachers spoke to the students in the majority of cases, and every student did her best to respond in Irish. In general, every effort was made to avoid translation as a means of explanation. In its stead, good use was made of play acting, flashcards or explanation in Irish and the teachers are to be commended for their efforts in this regard. It was observed however, that the students were not given sufficient time to practise speaking and the teachers are recommended to create activities through which opportunities for meaningful communication can be provided, whether this communication be between teacher and students or among the students themselves. The success of such communication is largely dependent on the teacher’s consideration of the main phrases required and to practise their usage beforehand. It would also be a good idea to display in the classroom the interrogative prefixes and the most frequently used phrases. These could be used as reference aids for students while speaking.
Many activities were undertaken during the Irish lessons. It was customary for the teachers to present the lesson content as the first step. The content of the lesson was often related to the lives and experience of the students themselves. This encouraged open discussion, and during this discussion the teacher put the key vocabulary on the blackboard. This is an effective means of developing the students’ vocabulary. It is recommended to teachers that they ensure the students’ ability to use the same vocabulary by placing emphasis on the creation of full sentences. It was customary for most of the teachers to organise pair work or some type of group work. In certain cases this interactivity was a strengthening of what had already been learned and it was successful. It was good to see or to hear the students using the Irish they had learned. In other cases, group work was used beneficially to encourage opinion and to stimulate the students’ imagination. This is good practice in so far as understanding and creativity are often more effective when a subject is discussed in a group situation. Teachers were recommended to reflect more deeply on the purpose of the activities which they organise. The development of oral skills should form one of the objectives in every activity that is organised and this should be taken into consideration in the design of the tasks.
It is a valuable resource for teachers of Irish to have their own rooms and it would be good if this opportunity were extended for the benefit of all teachers of Irish. Every classroom was decorated with the students’ work and with a variety of posters. It was recommended to extend this practice as much as possible. In certain cases effective use was made of a wide range of teaching and learning aids. Among these aids were work sheets, flashcards, tapes, photographs, the text book itself, posters and projector. It was evident that variety in the use of resources greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process and those teachers who brought this energy and vitality to their lessons are commended. Sometimes it was felt that some teachers were dependent upon the textbook and they were advised to make greater use of live resources (e.g. journals, television extracts, newspaper articles) in their lessons as the nearer the content is to the life and experience of the student the easier it is to discuss it. It was also recommended to use the language laboratory as much as possible.
In general, the content of the lessons related to the interest level and experience of the students, a fact that encouraged participation in the teaching process. Students had opinions on the themes that were chosen (e.g. home life, concerts, friends, sporting matters) which provoked the students to ask questions and to offer opinions. The attention of the students was directed towards points of language, a commendable practice, particularly for those who have good Irish. It was evident however, that in certain cases, sufficient provision was not made for the needs of the weaker students, particularly in the mixed ability classes, in so far as these students played a lesser role in the lesson activities. It is strongly recommended that teachers give further consideration to strategies that would ensure the equal participation of every student in the learning process. Not only should the weak or disinterested learner be targeted but students with a reasonable fluency should be noted and methods employed that would enrich their Irish.
The excellent condition of the copies observed was a source of great satisfaction. It was clear that every student had completed a quantity of written exercises and that much preparation had gone into examination questions by the students in the certificate classes. It is important to always remember that the exercise copy is the principal source of reference for students as they revise.
A school assessment policy is being drafted at present. It is recognised in the draft that assessment is an integral part of the learning process as it gives all participants insight into the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process.
Students complete written work regularly and this work is checked every day, a practice that is very important as a means of guaranteeing a high standard. The work is collected, if necessary, so that the teacher can analyse it more carefully. In certain classes a mark is given to the students’ essays. This is very good practice, particularly for senior students who are preparing for state examinations because it gives a clear insight into the standard that they are achieving. It is recommended that every teacher give feedback to students in their copies by means of a little note at the bottom of the written exercise. The attention of students should also be directed to the need to correct fundamental language mistakes.
In most of the classrooms visited, homework was checked at the beginning of the class. This is very good practice in so far as it illustrates the importance of vocabulary enrichment and spelling accuracy.
The teachers give tests regularly to students in the class in order to assess the efficacy of the learning. House examinations are held at Christmas time and in the summer. It is recommended that the oral ability of the students be registered by granting a mark for the effort made to speak Irish in the class. Not only would such a practice give recognition to the importance of language skills but it would encourage spoken Irish in the classroom.
The certificate classes have preliminary examinations in the spring. These preliminary examinations are worthwhile particularly as practice for the students in the rubrics of the state examinations, on the layout of the examination papers and on time management.
An examination in Irish forms part of the entrance examination. Not only does this examination give an insight into the standard of Irish of incoming first year students but it also makes it known that Irish has a high standing in the school and that it is recognised as one of the principal subjects to be studied.
Reports of the main examinations, whether they are house examinations or preliminary examinations, are sent home. This is a worthwhile practice as it keeps teachers, parents/guardians informed about the progress being made.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· This is a school in which Irish has a high standing and in which Irish is recognised as an integral part of the school’s identity.
· The school management gives great support to Irish, particularly in the areas of timetabling, development and extension of resources and extra-curricular activities.
· Teachers have put considerable effort into the subject planning process and it is evident that much thought has been given to learning objectives.
· It is with enthusiasm and with interest that both teachers and students undertake their responsibilities. The result of this can be seen in the standard of Irish whether it be in oral or written skills.
· Lessons were conducted through the medium of Irish and great praise is due to the students for the sincere effort they put into speaking Irish.
· In general, a wide range of activities was undertaken during the lessons which added greatly to the effectiveness of the teaching and the learning.
· The school has an assessment system that assesses the progress of the students and through which contact is made with parents/guardians.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended that all students have some contact with the Irish language during their schooling.
· It is recommended that the teachers of Irish extend the cooperative planning process and that they would focus primarily on two specific aspects: differentiated learning in the mixed ability classes and the design of a language programme for the transition year.
· It is recommended that language skills be included in the house examinations.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Irish and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.